Just a few days before the start of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 training camp, Head Coach Bruce Arians gave a bold assessment of one of his players. Arians was asked, in essence, if cornerback Carlton Davis was ready to make a leap to the elite level at his position in his third year. Apparently, that question should have been asked about eight months ago.
"I think Carlton made that move last November," said Arians. "What he did to DeAndre Hopkins was outstanding. He basically shut him out of the game and that's not an easy job. He did a really good job on Julio [Jones] – we realize Julio's a little stronger. The penalties have gone, he's one of the top 10 guys – in my opinion – right now."
There were 12 cornerbacks chosen for the Pro Bowl last year, including replacements, and Davis was not among them. That would suggest that the rest of the league hasn't yet caught up to Arians' way of thinking, or perhaps simply that the 7-9 Buccaneers didn't draw enough attention to get individual players the recognition they deserve. Or, even simpler, accolades like Pro Bowl invites and All-Pro selections tend to lag a bit behind when a player actually reaches that level.
In his second season after starting 12 games as a rookie in 2018, when he was chosen out of Auburn in the second round, Davis opened all 14 games in which he played and recorded 60 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception and 19 passes defensed. That last stat is the eye-opener; the only player in the NFL with more was NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, with 20.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Davis is part of a young and ascending secondary that overall is a little short on experience but definitely does not lack in confidence, especially after the way it jelled over the second half of the 2019 season. Davis believes there was truth in Arians' pre-camp words.
"Yeah, facts," he said. "I definitely feel like I'm one of the top 10 corners in this league. Yeah, I'm young, but I've got a lot of experience over these last two years. We have a young group, but if I have to fill that [leadership] role, that's something I'm willing to do and think I'm prepared to do. If our coaching staff trusts me to do a job, then I'm going to do it to the best of my ability every time."
Kevin Ross, Davis's position coach, surely thinks highly of the young corner as well but doesn't want such praise to go to his head. Essentially, it's Ross's job to keep Davis on track after his strong 2019 season, to make sure that Davis puts in the work necessary to justify Arians' assessment. That's how he's going to treat all of the Bucs' young corners.
"We'll see if he's a top-10 cornerback after the season," said Ross with a smile. "That's when that really counts, not preseason. We haven't done anything yet. We have not accomplished anything yet on defense. They have to continue to grow, to play for one another and understand how teams are trying to attack us."
If one were to look for ways to criticize Davis's game – or, from Ross's point of view, the things he needs to work on the most – it would start with what Arians mentioned, the penalties. Second on the list would be the need to convert more of those passes defensed into interceptions. But Arians has a point about that first item, when one breaks down the numbers a little bit.
Last season, Davis had flags thrown on him for defensive penalties on nine occasions, according to NFL stat service Sportradar. For comparison's sake, Gilmore had six. Buffalo's Tre'Davious White, another one of those 12 Pro Bowlers, had seven. Baltimore's Marlon Humphries, a Pro Bowl addition last January, had eight. To some extent, penalties in coverage are going to be unavoidable over the course of a full season, but it is possible to drastically reduce them. Seattle Pro Bowler Shaquill Griffin only drew one defensive flag. Pro Bowler Jalen Ramsey only had two.
But here's the thing: As Arians noted, Davis has already made a big step in that direction. Over the final eight weeks of the season – the stretch that coincided with Tampa Bay's defense turning things around and emerging as one of the league's best – Davis only drew one flag. In that same span, he tied for the NFL lead with 13 passes defensed.
"To Carlton's credit, he's working on techniques every day," said Ross. "He's not been grabbing as much as he was in the past. We worked on those things. We continue to work on those things. Like you said, if he gets his hands on the ball we hope he keeps it in his hands."
The good news for Ross is that even though Davis is confident to live in Arians' words, he doesn't expect to get those results without the work. His strong games against Hopkins and Jones were a boost, but they aren't on his mind now.
"What I can take from those performances is just confidence, but in actuality, that's in the past," said Davis. "I have to prove myself again this year. I have to put in the same work I put in those last several weeks to be prepared again. That was a good stride for me, but coming into this year, it's a completely blank slate and I've got to put it on film again. I've got to continue to show up. I'm not really living off the past. I'm more focused on the future and creating new memories."